PQfEW: Pre- and Post-colonial feminisms

Better late than never.

These quotes come from the anthology that I quoted from last week, Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. The essays are mostly descriptive – they explain and contextualize some of the ways that feminism exists in so-called Third World countries. (The term Third World is problematic, but it is frequently used by these writers to refer to any country that is struggling to develop a national government, economy, and identity in the wake of American or European colonization.) But the essays are also a little prescriptive – they are warnings or maybe even chastisements to Western feminists who make Third World oppression their business without acquainting themselves with the colonial history that led to the present state.

Reading transnational feminism is challenging for me – world history is not my strong suit, and transnational feminists frequently employ sharp theoretical criticisms as well as material narratives. But the perspective is well worth the challenge – let me know if you want me to explain or clarify anything in this sampling.

“Throughout global history, with few exceptions, women, the feminine, and figures of gender, have traditionally anchored the nationalist imaginary – that undisclosed ideological matrix of nationalist culture. For example, at some point of their historical emergence, nations and nationalisms inevitably posit and naturalize a strategic set of relationships linking land, language, history, and people to produce a crucial nexus of pivotal terms – “motherland,” “mother tongue,” historical or traditional “mother culture,” “founding fathers,” etc.- that will hold together the affective conditions, the emotive core, of nationalist ideology and pull a collection of disparate peoples into a self-identified nation.”
“Nationalism is so powerful a force in the Third World that to counter the charge if anti-nationalism – the assertion that feminism is of foreign origin and influence, and therefore implicitly or expressly anti-national – the strategic response of a Third World feminism under threat must be, and has sometimes been, to assume the nationalist mantle itself.” Geraldine Heng, “’A Great Way to Fly’: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.”
There are two important prongs to this argument. 1, sexism is often built right into the foundations of a developing nation – the metaphors Heng lists are certainly familiar, and they do reflect a pattern of figuring the nation as a female body that both nurtures/generates its citizens and requires those citizens to protect and possess it. Sometimes this weird gendering of land and people remains at the metaphorical level, but often enough it reifies a preexisting division of labor and urges the nation’s men to protect their women from the political sphere, and the women to replenish the supply of protective men. Heng quotes some staggering speechs from the Singapore prime minister along these lines. She also gives a very literal example of this appropriation of the female body for national image and ideology: the Singapore Girl, the sexy air hostess/mascot for Singapore Airlines. Publicity for SIA revolved around this sexualized, Orientalized image of a passive woman eager to provide comfort and satisfaction. This image crystallizes a number of ideological problems – the appropriated female body, the hypermasculine business world, the Westernization of the business world, without which this Orientalized icon wouldn’t have so much currency – but criticism from women’s activist groups was not successful in addressing those issues. Why? They were accused of trying to sabotage the Airline’s key to successful business – which leads to quote 2: feminism in the Third World might be seen as anti-modern when it attacks processes of development that disadvantage women, but it might also be seen as too modern as it is a product of the West.
Thus, despite all of the internal contradictions, feminism may very well take on the “mantle of nationalism” (a phrase that conjures an image of hiding underneath a big national flag, to me) in order to carry on the business of protecting women’s more immediate interests.

 

“Prevailing gender ideologies have much bearing on the types of violence that are manifested in a given context. The confinement of women to the economically dependent role of housewife is a condition that has made it difficult for many women to leave otherwise unbearably violent situations. In other words, the domestication of women is a precondition for the crime we define as domestic violence.” Amina Mama, “Sheroes and Villains.”This is a line in a larger argument about the types of oppression experienced by women in sub-Saharan African countries, and the ways in which women resist – that resistance is a huge point in each essay I read last week. The writers insist that we avoid falling into the trap of considering “other” women helplessly victimized – where there is oppression, as I said in an earlier post, there will be resistance.
But this quote jumped out because it could certainly apply to American women as well. I find the phrase “the domestication of women” particularly compelling… it sounds like the women are animals that are housetrained for practical use or enjoyment. In the instance Mama describes – the Congolese housewives hand-picked and trained to espouse the local men employed by the colonial regime there – this is not an exaggeration; one can observe vestiges of this kind of sexism in family values talk in our own political arena.

 

“To fully comprehend the struggles of native peoples, and specifically native women, we must also understand the US as an advanced colonial state, because territorial colonization remains integral to the relationship between the state and native peoples.”
“Unlike other racially subordinated groups whose relationship to the American state have been defined largely by forced exclusion, the relationships of native peoples have been predicated on practices of forced inclusion.” Marie Anna Jaimes Guerrero, “Civil Rights versus Sovereignty.”
In case you forgot, the United States began as a colony – and, although we like the heroic story of breaking off from the big mean empire, the first and continuous story is one of disenfranchising a pre-existing nation – well, a multitude of pre-existing nations. This essay describes the ways in which the United States not only rewrote the citizenship and government of the indigenous people, but also superimposed a patriarchy onto cultures that practiced various degrees of matriarchy, gender equality, or gender fluidity.
Two phrases that are useful and meaningful: I’m not completely sure what Guerrero means by advanced colonial state, but it does seem that the US is one of few colonies that has not only maintained its political control over the land and indigenous people for centuries, but is pretty successful at disabling the indigenous culture: Native Americans can choose reservation or assimilation, both of which are largely dictated by US standards. Also, forced inclusion is a succinct way of describing exactly what “assimilation” means – it is not a synonym of integration, which suggests agency and cooperation.

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